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IFB Missions: Winning the World for Jesus

the missionary
Cartoon by Tjeerd Royaards

And he [Jesus] said unto them [his disciples], Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. Mark 16:15

Visit an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in your community and you will likely find a corkboard somewhere with pictures of and letters from the church’s missionaries. Some IFB churches support a handful of missionaries, other churches support hundreds.

Home and world missions are very much a part of IFB church life. Congregants are encouraged to read the letters from missionaries, pray for them, and support them financially on a weekly or monthly basis. Some IFB churches have annual Faith Promise Missions conferences. For several nights, missionaries on deputation — going from church to church hoping to raise support — or missionaries home on furlough are paraded before the church, often giving impassioned pleas for prayer and financial support. At the conclusion of the conference, church members will be asked to promise — by faith — to give X number of dollars to missions over the next year. Congregants will always be reminded that their faith promise offering is above and beyond their regular tithes and offerings. Can’t have people cutting their weekly offerings and giving the money to the missionaries. Nope, God wants X dollars above the tithe, building fund offering, revival love offering, pastor’s love offering, special offerings, and whatever other offering tickles the fancy of the church’s pastor. It is not uncommon to hear of church members giving twenty-percent or more of their GROSS income to the church. Their “sacrifice,” of course, makes up for the people who think churches don’t need money to operate.

I spent twenty-five years pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Every church I pastored regularly supported missionaries financially. Countless missionaries preached for me — called “presenting their ministry” — over the years. Let me share some of the highlights of my experiences with IFB missionaries.

One young man who quickly comes to memory was sponsored by a Landmark Baptist church in Kentucky. While his presentation was nondescript, what I most remember is his wife and young children. The wife seemed quite stressed out to me. A year later, I heard that they had raised their support, moved to the field, and the wife had a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, I have heard numerous similar stories. A man believes God is calling him to be a missionary in some backwater in Africa or South America. He tells his dutiful IFB wife that God is calling him to be a missionary. Rarely is her opinion on the matter considered. Her missionary husband is the head of the home, and he alone makes all the decisions. So, off they go on the deputation trail, and once sufficient money is raised, on to the foreign mission field they go. Imagine the culture shock. While many women adapt (or endure), others do not. Not wanting to be viewed as failures by their supporters back home, these obedient wives and mothers slide into despondency. This, of course, leads to mental collapse. Home she comes with her husband and children, ever to be remembered as the woman who couldn’t cut it on the mission field; the woman who didn’t trust God enough to meet her every need.

I know of several instances where married couples went through the whole fundraising process — which often takes years — and once it was time to leave for their chosen field, the wife said, “nope, I’m not going!” Instead of realizing that his wife was not suited for mission work, the God-called missionary tried to force his wife to comply. She complied all right, all the way to divorce court. He went on to the field anyway — God comes first.

While I met a number of missionaries who were committed to reaching the lost Hottentots with the IFB gospel, I met more than a few missionaries who were, to put it bluntly, lazy bums. Of course, I could say the same thing about some of the preachers I have met over the years. The ministry, in general, is a great place to hide if you are looking to make money without doing much work. Men without a good work ethic find the ministry the best job possible for someone like them. So it is with some missionaries.

The church I pastored in southeast Ohio for eleven years had what is commonly called a prophet’s chamber. This was a furnished room in which traveling missionaries and evangelists could stay while at our church. They also had access to a shower in the men’s restroom and the church’s kitchen. Let a missionary (and his family) stay with you for a few days and you quickly learn a good bit about the man’s character and his relationship with his spouse. One man stayed with us for almost a week. Polly and I, along with our children, lived in a mobile home next door to the church. Polly provided at least two meals a day for this missionary and did his laundry. I thought, maybe, just maybe, this man would say, “Hey, is there anything I can do to help? Instead, he spent his time with us looking for used cars to buy. He was excited that nearby Zanesville had a plethora of used car lots. Winning the lost for Jesus? I saw zero interest. But, finding a classic muscle car? Now, that revved up this man’s heart. Needless to say, we did not financially support him.

One sad but true maxim about young men entering the ministry is this: those who can preach pastor or start American churches, those who can’t become missionaries. While I learned over the years that plenty of American IFB churches were pastored by men who couldn’t preach a lick, when it came to missionaries this maxim was generally true. I heard some awful, awful, awful sermons preached by missionaries. I remember hearing one pastor tell a group of preachers, “I don’t have missionaries preach for me. I tell them, want to raise money? Let me do the talking.” This sage advice was spot on. I sat through numerous atrocious sermons delivered by hopeful missionaries who didn’t have a clue about how to properly deliver a sermon. More than a few of these missionaries had no post-high school training. God was calling them, and in their minds, that’s all they needed. I wonder how many hopeful missionaries never made it to the field due to their inability to passionately convey their “need” to prospective supporting churches.

One young missionary asked me how long he had to speak. I gave him my standard answer, “just say whatever the Lord lays upon your heart.” Ninety plus minutes later, the full-of-the-Holy-Ghost missionary concluded his rambling monotone sermon. I learned right then and there to NEVER tell a missionary speaker, “just say whatever the Lord lays upon your heart.” After this debacle, I set a thirty-minute time limit for missionaries. I went through similar experiences with several evangelists. I never found a way to politely tell them to cut the length of their sermons. Instead, I just never had them speak for our church again. I can count on one hand the preachers I have heard over the years who could keep a congregation’s attention for longer than forty-five minutes. Missions 101 should teach young missionaries to keep their presentations short and sweet; that is if they want to raise enough funds to make it to the field.

Readers raised in IFB churches likely remember watching slide presentations given by missionaries. The purpose of these slideshows was twofold: to show in the best light possible the work the missionary was doing on the field or hoped to do once they arrived there, and to make church members feel guilty over the eternal state of Hottentots. The end game was to get congregants to cough up money in support of the missionary — either for the love offering that night or ongoing monthly support.

Driving the missionary enterprise is the belief that the overwhelming majority of people on planet earth are lost/unsaved and need to hear the IFB gospel. From an eschatological perspective, IFB churches generally believe that the gospel must be preached to the whole world before Jesus can return to earth to rapture them away. Matthew 24:13-14 says:

But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.

Once soul number 666,666,666 is won to Jesus, then, and only then, will Gabriel blow his trumpet, signaling the second coming of Jesus. This thinking drives much of the evangelistic zeal found among IFB churches and preachers. The sooner the last appointed soul is saved, the sooner True Christians® will be swept away and given their eternal reward in Heaven.

One issue that troubled me back in my IFB days was the fact that most missionary endeavors focused on countries that spoke English and were predominantly white. Certainly, some missionaries went to countries dominated by people of color, but the majority of missionaries I came in contact with went to countries that looked very much like them and spoke their native tongue. Thus, it was not uncommon to meet missionaries that were headed to “non-Christian” nations such as Canada, Australia, and Britain. Spanish speaking countries were also favorite targets. Why? Spanish is a relatively easy language to learn.

Bruce, “missionaries to CANADA?” Yep, and countries such as Mexico, France, Ireland, and other countries with predominately Christian populations. You need to understand that IFB churches don’t believe that Catholics, mainline Protestant Christians, Charismatics, Pentecostals, and a host of other sects are True Christians®. That’s why I could go to rural communities with numerous Christian churches already and start new IFB/Sovereign Grace churches. You see, only the church I was starting was a Bible-preaching Christian church. All others were either cults or heterodox. So it is with IFB missionaries. Thanks to their exclusivist beliefs, they can look at white first-world Christian nations and conclude that these people need to hear the “true” gospel.

Do you have a missionary story to share? Please share it in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    I spent decades supporting ‘foreign missions.’ A young man sent us his prayer letter one summer which said he was so very busy in Paris. He pastored a church there and had to ‘plan the autumn series of mid-week bible studies as well as sermons.’ His church had 26 members, including children. He asked for prayer for when he sat (in the sunshine) at cafe tables in central Paris some afternoons, hoping to chat and ”witness” to tourists. I thought what a nice life…my husband pastored a church of 70, we spent all our free time doing church stuff…and we had children and demanding full-time jobs too…I thought for years, privately, that some of the missionaries I supported wouldn’t last a week doing the normal everyday jobs the rest of us had to do in the secular world, having to obey whatever our boss told us to do.
    I know 2 young missionaries in islamic countries. They got visas to study arabic at universities. But they are lying-for-jesus. their home churches have their photos displayed on the missions noticeboard and folk pray for these ‘courageous’ young men in heathen lands. If their covert evangelism comes to the attention of the authorities…they’ll straightaway be deported and go home to a welcome for being persecuted. Any converts they’ve made, OTOH, may face prison, social and family ostracisation or worse for changing their religion!

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    Gary Pike, escapee of Fundie edumacation

    “….One issue that troubled me back in my IFB days was the fact that most missionary endeavors focused on countries that spoke English and were predominantly white. Certainly, some missionaries went to countries dominated by people of color, but the majority of missionaries I came in contact with went to countries that looked very much like them and spoke their native tongue.”

    Well, they ran out of Warsaw Pact states to smuggle Bibles into, or slots posing as “exchange students” while living in Tirana, Albania while they secretly preached IFBism. Doing something like that in Mao’s China would be like landing on the Moon in a hot-air balloon for the average Fundie…..better that they get material translated and hand it out though the secret Nationalist/religious samizdat circles. Darn you, Reagan, Gorbachev, Chernobyl plant Four, and the War in Afghanistan for killing the Ultimate Fundie Grift!

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    Right after I graduated from college I went on a 2 week mission trip with 3 other students and an adult from the Baptist Sunday School Board through the church I was attending. We went to the newly “free” Belarus and Russia. We spent time helping out the Southern Baptist missionaries who were stationed there. Mostly we were trotted out to show what Americans looked like. I was the only one who spoke any Russian, except the missionary couple who had spent several months in extensive Russian language training. The Baptist church they pictured had a lot of Russian Orthodox overtones, naturally. I have no idea how they came to be in possession of an actual church merely 1 year after the Soviet Union split up. But apparently there had been a good number of underground churches operating in the former USSR.

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    Just remembered another missionary story that was appalling. My company had a customer many years ago whose CFO who was a former missionary (I don’t know which sect). He and his wife and 2 very young children moved to some part of Africa where they were missionaries. The 2 children died due to poor medical care. He and the wife moved back to the US, he got his MBA, and they had 2 more kids. To my knowledge he never went back to missions.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    My spinster aunt spent her adult life in missionary work in Africa. We kids loved to look at the crafts and leatherwork articles she would bring home on furlough, offerings to her supporters as a word of thanks for being remembered in the dark continent. She was always a good deal overweight, my aunt, and once when my brother and I were about 7 or so, she visited on one of her trips home and sat herself on a big chair my dad had rebuilt and upholstered. After a few moments, the front legs flew out from the chair and my aunt was bum-down on the floor. My brother, quite interested in the phenomenon, approached her as she regained her composure and asked very sincerely, “Auntie, have you weighed yourself lately?” This line of curiosity was not welcomed by my parents and we were banished from the living room for a time.
    I do remember several visits from mission families and seeing slides! (It shouldn’t surprise me but often does, how these IFB churches ran their scams for God. They all did pretty much the same thing in the same order with the offering plate handy. No matter how much one is encouraged to believe in God for all things, the offering plate is intrinsic and the dollar decides. It is was not really about saving souls alone but about ‘building’ the church, filling the offering plate.
    To this day, I believe there is no better place in the world to be taught to tell lies than in the evangelical church of Jesus. A contributor recently suggested to Bruce that he felt Christ always told the truth. Why is it then that his church is a school for children et al to be liars?

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    YES! Thank you for confirming my own experience. During the 15 years that I experimented with trying to be Christian, I visited one local Baptist church (among many). This one had an active missions campaign going on and it was at its peak the day I visited. Everyone got a full-color glossy brochure about the family. They really could have skipped the photography — I found myself wishing that orthodontists would conduct their own missionary trips and hopefully reach this particular group. Yikes.

    Everyone was encouraged to write to them and, of course, send money or something from the list of needed items.
    I did write to them. It was part of my learning process. They were in France, and having been raised Catholic, I was under the impression that France was quite the Christian environment (Joan of Arc comes to mind…). But the mother wrote back, saying that many people had this misconception. She bemoaned at length the wretched state of things over there. Most people never went to church! They didn’t have their kids baptized! Everything was secular. People just lived their lives, enjoyed their relationships, raised their children to do well in school, traveled, enjoyed pop culture, worked and saved money. Sickening! What a sorry, lost society!

    It was only 12-13 years later, when I had reverted to my original non-theistic self, that I recalled this and decided that if I ever had enough money to travel, France would be near the top of my list of places to go. It sounded pretty cool to me.

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    At another Baptist church I attended, they gave a long slideshow about the Caribbean island being “blessed” by their missionaries. One of them said “Yes, and when we came to the house, we spoke to the group of ladies sitting in rocking chairs on the porch.” He then went to the next slide, but first came back to the microphone and said “Oh, I suppose I should clarify — these were BLACK ladies on the porch.” And then he continued with his slideshow. God forbid black women should ever be lumped into the same category as “reg’lar, white ladies.” Nauseating.

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    I was a missionary kid in the tropics—not IFB but oh the stories! Honestly, dealing with poisonous critters and giant bugs was the easiest part of the whole experience.

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Bruce Gerencser